July 17, 2008

Stop Scapegoating Teachers

By Randi Weingarten

Teachers, parents, school officials and all others who want excellent schools share a common interest in making sure that every teacher is a great teacher. Indeed, 94% of New York City public school parents responding to a school district survey earlier this month said they are happy with their children's teachers. That said, we agree that one bad teacher is one too many, but there are fair and timely ways to deal with this issue without smearing all hard-working teachers and their union.

New York City's School Chancellor Joel Klein should know this; he and the New York teachers' union have worked together to deal with competence issues in a manner consistent with the American notion of due process. Among other things, we established a program in which expert teachers -- selected jointly by management and teachers -- work with struggling teachers and, if there's no improvement, counsel them out of the profession.

Let's stop making teachers an easy scapegoat. There are many factors that affect student learning that are beyond a teacher's control, including a school's resources, class size, availability of special education, the performance of other teachers, student mobility and attendance, and parent support. If the goal is to improve public schools and student achievement, let's work to recruit, support and keep the best teachers and have them implement programs with a proven track record.

Many school districts have put in place teacher quality initiatives -- frankly, usually at the urging of teachers' unions -- that are improving student learning. They can and should be replicated elsewhere. New teachers need strong mentoring programs. When teachers are floundering, they need appropriate assistance to get them back on track. All teachers need the opportunity to collaborate among themselves to share best practices and new ideas.

Instead of coming at the issue of boosting student performance with the spurious "It's the bad teachers, stupid," we need to develop and put in place innovative programs that will make a difference in the lives of teachers and, even more important, their students.

Randi Weingarten is president of the American Federation of Teachers. (c) Copyright 2008 USA TODAY, a division of Gannett Co. Inc. <>